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The Influence and Legacy of Tupac Shakur on the 20th Anniversary of His Death

I remember the day Tupac Shakur died: September 13, 1996. There was no Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to help mourn the loss of the hip-hop genius. Six days earlier Tupac was shot attending a Mike Tyson fight, and I had hoped he survived. We only had television giving us up-to-date information. Luckily, I was in the Bay Area, and Tupac was from Oakland, so it was on all the local channels.

“TUPAC SHOT DEAD ON LAS VEGAS STRIP.” My heart sank. I was hoping it was just a rumor.

On Entertainment Tonight, the most popular entertainment news show of the era, “East Coast vs. West Coast” and “Tupac versus Biggie” were main headlines for at least a year. It was the first time that I recall hip-hop becoming part of mainstream media and the controversy it created was as big as any Kardashian/Kanye story today.

Tupac’s influence continues to live long after his death. Earlier this year I saw a Sprite commercial before a screening of the most recent Jason Bourne film. The ad was for Sprite’s 2016 Lyrical Collection, and Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” was the soundtrack. Seated in front of us were about seven or eight teenagers, not even born when Tupac died, all bobbing their heads and reciting the lyrics.

It’s hard to list just a few of Tupac’s most important moments, albums, or lyrics. His influence is everywhere from Eminem and Kendrick Lamar to Justin Timberlake. Tupac leaves behind a gaping hole that rap desperately needs in 2016.

Keep Ya Head Up

In 1993, Tupac visited the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles to speak with high school students. To lift the spirits of a young woman and the problems she faced, he recited the lyrics to one of his more well-known songs “Keep Ya Head Up”:

Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care
And uhh, I know they like to beat ya down a lot
When you come around the block brothas clown a lot
But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl keep your head up
And when he tells you you ain’t nothin’ don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him
Cause sista you don’t need him
And I ain’t tryin to gash up, I just call ’em how I see ’em
You know it makes me unhappy
When brothas make babies, and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman.

What made Tupac so great was his ability to tell stories in his music. He pulled you into a place you never thought rap lyrics could take you. Through his lyrics, he took the listener to places that might have been totally foreign on the surface, but completely relatable at its core because they touched on the heart and soul of what it means to be human. Tupac brought rap to a level of artistry that read like poetry.

Tupac 101

It was astonishing how academia recognized Tupac’s poetry. In 1997, UC Berkeley offered a month-long course called “History 98, the Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur.” The University of Washington held an advanced history class called “The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur,” which compares his lyrics to authors including Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Harvard University offered an extension class called “American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac,” which examined “the rich tradition of progressive protest literature in the United States from the American Revolution to the rise of hip-hop, globalization, and modern-day slavery.” You have to wonder, in 20 years, will students still be studying his lyrics like they do Shakespeare?

Rapper Turned Superstar

Poetic Justice came out when I was 15, and we were denied tickets because we were not old enough to watch it in the theater. Instead, we lied and snuck in after buying tickets for another film.

After seeing Poetic Justice, I was convinced that Tupac was far too talented to just be a “rapper.” He stole my heart playing Janet Jackson’s love interest, a post office worker named Lucky. He went on to play roles in other critically-acclaimed films such as Above the Rim and Juice. He also hilariously appeared on In Living Color with Jamie Foxx.

Virtual Tupac

Perhaps the best performer of Coachella 2012 wasn’t a living one, but instead the resurrection of virtual Tupac. It spawned the idea that we could bring back any artist via hologram, Elvis, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and people would pay top dollar to see them. It also kept us optimistic that possibly, he was still alive, as rumors continue to persist that he is hiding on an island drinking margaritas, watching us all mourn his death.

Stay tuned for the Tupac biopic All Eyez On Me which will hit the big screen November 11.


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